Tag Archives: Office of Management and Budget

Why rail companies are pushing for one-person train crews

Repost from Fortune

Why rail companies are pushing for one-person train crews

By David Z. Morris, June 11, 2015, 8:17 AM EDT
A BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Mont. Photograph by Matthew Brown — AP
As technology advances, train crews shrink. But is safety on the line?

Most freight rail lines still operate with two-person crews, a minimum is now enshrined in labor contracts held by the United Transportation Union and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. But railways, citing in part the rise of automated safety systems, are pushing to change that.

“Most rail corporations would like to get rid of as many workers as possible,” says Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of Railroad Workers United, a group that opposes smaller crews. “Right now, they believe they can operate trains with a single employee.”

Both sides claim safety is their main priority, but there are clearly other motivations—unions want to preserve jobs, while railways are striving to cut labor costs.

Regulators seem to be siding with labor on the question of staffing. The Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing a proposed Federal Railroad Administration rule that would require at last two railroad employees on a train at all times.

The move to one-person crews would be the culmination of a long process. Mirroring sectors from manufacturing to stock brokerage, technology has allowed the rail industry to shed jobs even as revenues rise. Since the 1960s, innovations including diesel engines, better radios, and wayside monitoring gear has meant less need for warm bodies. U.S. railway employment declined 3% in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. Those changes and more, says Kaminkow, led to the standardization of two-man freight train crews in the 1990s.

But the replacement of workers by technology has coincided with a massive improvement in railway safety. According to data from George Bibel, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of North Dakota, derailments have decreased from over 3,000 in 1980 to less than 500 in 2010. A recent Northwestern University study found similar steep declines in rail fatalities.

Nonetheless, rail workers say that reducing crews to a single operator is a step too far. The RWU argues that routine operations like attaching and detaching cars from a train would be unsafe without a team able to see surroundings.

There are more dramatic cases, such as the May 12th derailment of Amtrak 188. Though the incident is still under investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board has looked into the possibility that engineer Brandon Bostian was either distracted by his phone or incapacitated as the train hit a curve at more than twice the posted speed limit. In those scenarios, the fatal crash might have been prevented by a second engineer.

Another tragic incident occurred when a solo engineer improperly parked the train for the night above Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013. It rolled into downtown Lac-Mégantic and exploded, killing 47 and destroying much of the town’s central district. That train was operated by a smaller line not subject to the labor contracts in effect for so-called Class I carriers.

Kaminkow says that freight engineers operate on unpredictable schedules, generating fatigue that can lead to this sort of mistake.

Unless and until the proposed FRA rule passes, there is no national rule on train staffing levels. U.S. states including Washington, Utah, and Iowa are considering their own rules, but these could be vulnerable to challenge under interstate commerce law.

Regardless of the FRA rule, technology will continue to erode rail jobs. With BNSF piloting a program to inspect rail using drones, track crews may shrink. And though Positive Train Control has been touted primarily as a safety measure, Kaminkow says the technology is a major step towards something more radical.

“If PTC comes online,” he says, “[Railways] will then point out that the train is basically capable of running itself.”

From there, driverless trains would be possible, at least in theory.

Please share!

Benicia city council to send letter supporting safer rail measures

Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald
[Editor:  See original documents on the City of Benicia’s website:
      – Staff’s Agenda Report
      – Mayor Patterson’s draft letter of support (not approved)
      – League of Cities letter requesting letters of support & sample letter (sample letter approved)
For a local news report that fails to describe the City’s recommendations in the letter, see The Benicia Herald.  (The Herald previously detailed these recommendations.)  – RS]

Benicia council to send letter supporting safer rail measures

By Irma Widjojo, 04/08/15, 8:36 PM PDT

Benicia >> The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to send a letter in support of several rail safety recommendations to the Federal Office of Management and Budget.

Mayor Elizabeth Patterson asked the council to consider sending the letter as requested by the League of Cities, of which Benicia is a member.

The league has adopted 10 recommendation as official policy to “increase rail safety in the transport of hazardous materials.”

The recommendations include mandating speed limits and electronically controlled braking systems, increasing the federal funding for training and equipment purchases for first responders, regulating the parking and storage of tank cars and others.

Patterson on Tuesday said sending such a letter usually doesn’t require it to be presented in a city council meeting, however City Councilman Tom Campbell has voiced his concerns due to the pending Valero Crude by Rail project.

“I wanted the city attorney to give an opinion if we are going to run into an issue of possibly prejudicing ourselves,” Campbell said Tuesday.

The city is currently processing the use permit and Environmental Impact Report for the project.

City Attorney Heather McLaughlin said there would not be an issue of bias, since the letter only states that “we just want the oil transported safely.”

Though the council voted unanimously to send the letter, they opted for the version that was provided by the league, instead of the one that was slightly edited by Patterson.

“I would go along with the language of the league as provided for consistency,” Vice Mayor Mark Hughes said.

A Benicia resident and environmental activist spoke during the public comment period stating that the letter will not have any effect on the Valero project.

“The letter is not going to make much impact as much as I appreciate the spirit of it,” Marilyn Bardet said. “The rail will be built before any policy is put in place.”

Patterson has also has been an outspoken advocate of tougher crude-by-rail safety measures.

Please share!

Benicia CA: City Council adopts letter encouraging rail safety

Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald
[Editor:  UPDATE: On Tuesday, 4/7/15, the Benicia City Council approved sending the League of California Cities letter by unanimous vote.  See original documents on the City of Benicia’s website:
      – Staff’s Agenda Report
      – Mayor Patterson’s draft letter of support (not approved)
      – League of Cities letter requesting letters of support & sample letter (sample letter approved)
– RS]

Benicia mayor to request council to send letter encouraging rail safety

By Irma Widjojo, 04/06/15, 7:58 PM PDT
Benicia, California
Benicia, California

Benicia >> Mayor Elizabeth Patterson on Tuesday night will be asking the rest of the city council to consider sending a letter to the Federal Office of Management and Budget in support of several rail safety recommendations.

League-of-CA-Cities-LogoBenicia is a member of the League of Cities, which has adopted 10 recommendation as official policy to “increase rail safety in the transport of hazardous materials.”

The recommendations include mandating speed limits and electronically controlled braking systems, increasing the federal funding for training and equipment purchases for first responders, regulating the parking and storage of tank cars and others.

The League Executive Director has requested that cities send letters to the appropriate federal rail safety rule making authority requesting that these measures be implemented, Patterson said.

Patterson — an outspoken advocate of tougher crude-by-rail safety measures — said she has asked the city attorney to “determine whether sending a letter requesting rail safety improvements would in any way create a due process issue for the city,” since Benicia is currently processing the use permit and Environmental Impact Report for the Valero Crude by Rail project.

However, the city attorney determined that there would not be an issue since “the letter does not oppose the Valero project or take any position on adequacy of the environmental review for the project.”

In November, the city attorney released a legal opinion that states that Patterson should not participate in any decision concerning the project because “the appearance of bias” could result in a legal challenge against the city.

However, the mayor, who has hired her own attorney, at that time indicated she doesn’t intend to follow the city’s advice.

The council is set to meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 250 E. L St. Agendas and staff reports can be found on the City’s website.
Please share!